Plan a Two-Week Vacation to Sydney & the Great Barrier Reef

Dividing your time between Australia’s greatest city and its greatest natural wonder presents an interesting challenge, given the embarrassment of riches they offer. Two weeks gives you time to cover sights and activities that need to ticked off anybody’s must-do list, along with some of my personal favorites.


Sydney

Day 1

Arrive in Sydney, check into your hotel, and blow away the travel cobwebs with a first visit to Circular Quay. See the iconic Sydney Opera House, stroll past the ferries crisscrossing the harbor, and, depending on time, head for The Rocks. Amble through the lanes, pop into The Rocks Discovery Museum, and get a feel for Sydney’s humble beginnings.

Travel map of Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef

Day 2

Head to Sydney Tower Eye to get your bearings, then spend the day exploring Hyde Park Barracks and walking down Macquarie Street, where each building offers a slice of Australia’s history—stroll past or into the Sydney Mint, Sydney Hospital, the State Library of New South Wales, and Government House. Meander through the Royal Botanic Gardens to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair for the best views of the city and the harbor. If you have time, have a look through the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Day 3

Take the bus to Bondi Beach. Spend the morning learning to surf or watching the pros take on the waves. After lunch, head off along the stunning Bondi to Coogee coastal walk toward Bronte Beach and Coogee Beach—the scenery is some of the best in the land. Head back to Sydney for dinner at one of the little restaurants in trendy Paddington.

Waves roll in on beautiful Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia.
On day three, spend the morning learning to surf or watching the pros take on the waves. Photo © Gordon Bell/123rf.

Day 4

After a morning climb up the Sydney Harbour Bridge, take the Manly ferry in lieu of a harbor tour. Have lunch and upon returning double back toward Taronga Zoo to meet the local wildlife. In the evening, head back to The Rocks for dinner and the scenic views of the city at nighttime. If you have the budget, go straight to Quay; for a more affordable meal also with good views, try Baroque.

If you have more time….

Spend a day exploring Darling Harbour and its attractions. Then amble down to the Powerhouse Museum and check out Chinatown and Paddy’s Market, which offers a little bit of everything.

Head out of the city to the Blue Mountains. Ride the rails and cable cars at aptly named Scenic World. Learn about the environment, culture, and history of the region at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in Katoomba. Look at the Three Sisters rock formation from Echo Point, and maybe take a hike down into the valley before going back to Sydney for a late dinner.

Travel north to the Hunter Valley. Sample the wares at some wineries, enjoy a leisurely lunch, and explore the Hunter Valley Gardens in Pokolbin, and then head back to Sydney for dinner.


The Great Barrier Reef

Day 5

Leave Sydney and head toward Queensland. Fly into Proserpine and travel onward to Airlie Beach. Spend the afternoon soaking up the relaxed atmosphere in the small town.

Travel map of The Whitsunday Islands and Airlie Beach, Australia
The Whitsunday Islands and Airlie Beach

Day 6

Take the morning boat to Hamilton Island and spend the day exploring this large Whitsunday island by buggy or free shuttle bus. Have lunch and beach time in the main resort center. In the evening, take the long way back on the ferry, returning via Long Island or Daydream Island, to enjoy the views and get a glimpse of other Whitsunday islands.

Day 7

Take a day’s sailing cruise to Whitehaven Beach with its swirly white sands for some snorkeling and swimming.

Day 8

Sail to Fantasea Reefsleep and spend another day snorkeling and diving the Great Barrier Reef, then stay overnight on this floating hotel before heading back to the airport the next morning.

Travel map of Cairns, Australia
Cairns

Day 9

Fly into Cairns. Explore the ever-changing exhibits at the Cairns Regional Gallery, worth visiting just for its neo-Grecian-style building. Take a stroll along the sea on the Esplanade, with countless cafés, restaurants, and shops—it’s a great place for people-watching and bird-watching. Enjoy a shady, restful walk at the Flecker Botanical Gardens, a lovely expanse of “tamed” rainforest.

Day 10

Take a day trip to Kuranda, taking the Skyrail cableway over the rainforest’s canopy. Shop till you drop at the town’s markets, and pop into the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. Return to Cairns by Kuranda Scenic Railway, sweeping past waterfalls and across gorges.

Day 11

Take the ferry to pretty Green Island, the closest coral cay island to Cairns, for a refreshing day on the reef, swimming, snorkeling, and diving.

Day 12

Do a day trip to Cape Tribulation. Go crocodile spotting on the Daintree River. Visit the Daintree Discovery Centre and head north through the ancient rainforest to one of the deserted beaches and one of the many boardwalks, learning about the Aboriginal history and local flora and fauna.

Travel map of Daintree and Cape Tribulation, Australia
Daintree and Cape Tribulation

Day 13

Take a trip inland today. Head past The Boulders in Babinda to the enchanting Paronella Park. Travel back past Mission Beach, trying to spot an elusive cassowary.

Day 14

Relax on Fitzroy Island, covered by rainforest and fringed by reef. Top up the tan and get a last swim and snorkel in while reflecting on your trip before heading back tomorrow.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Sydney & the Great Barrier Reef.